Former Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian Explains What Makes Mac Jones Special

Few know as well as his former coach why the QB prospect is positioned to succeed in the NFL. Plus, the best non-QB prospects, does DeVonta's Smith's weight matter and more.
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Mike Tyson famously once said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. That old adage really explains why, for the first 11 months he spent with Mac Jones, then Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian had his backup quarterback down as a smart, competitive kid with a lot left to prove.

Then, on Nov. 30, 2019, Jones really took one in the teeth.

That was the day of the Iron Bowl, and Jones’s third start for the Tide, in his third year on campus. Alabama’s archrival got after him. Auburn’s menacing front, juiced by No. 7 pick Derrick Brown, lived in the backfield that afternoon, registering eight tackles for losses. The chaos led to two pick-sixes by Jones—one a bad throw, the other bad luck—and as the sun set on Jordan-Hare Stadium, the crowd only got more hostile.

“Both times, after the interceptions, he came right back, made some great throws and led us back down the field for a touchdown,” Sark said on Wednesday, from his new office in Austin. “Derrick Brown, they had some great pass rushers. I mean, he is standing in and taking hits and delivering strikes at critical moments and leads us down at the end of the game again for a game-tying field goal, which we ultimately missed.

“But doing that—he earned a lot of respect for me. And I think he earned a lot of respect from his teammates, from the resiliency that he showed, the mental and physical toughness that he showed. And then we went on to beat Michigan in the bowl game. But that game always kind of stands out to me, not because we won, but more so of just him. I learned a lot about him in that game.”

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That Auburn game would stand as Jones’s final loss at Alabama, and the momentum has carried right into the 2021 draft cycle, during which Jones has gone from a first-round curiosity into, potentially, the third pick.

The biggest question on Jones has been an easy one: What makes this guy who isn’t a lot of things special enough to go that high? To find out, I called Sarkisian, who I’d heard was raving about his old quarterback to NFL teams.

If you want to know why the Niners would consider him at No. 3, you’ve come to the right place.


A week to go. Here’s what’s in this week’s GamePlan …

• A reset of the top five non-quarterbacks in the draft.

• A look at how much DeVonta Smith’s weight really matters.

• Why you shouldn’t count on a lot of trades in the top 10.

But we’re starting with what, exactly, makes Jones special as a quarterback.


Before that game against Auburn, Sarkisian’s view of Jones fit how a lot of people on the outside have viewed him over the last three months.

“It was, this guy is really smart, and he’s really competitive,” Sarkisian said. “But I didn’t know if he was the classroom-smart quarterback that maybe wouldn’t be able to apply it in a game when the bullets really started flying. And sitting in the same room was Tua [Tagovailoa], who we had a lot of real evidence on, that this guy could play and play really high-level football at the most critical moments. Go back to freshman year in the Georgia game, right?

“So it was a little bit unfair, but that just was the environment that I was in. I had one guy who had played a lot of football. One guy who had barely played at all. And you just don’t know sometimes until they get put into the live bullets.”

What happened when the live bullets started flying at Jones is one reason Sarkisian is sitting where he is now, as the head coach at Texas.

And for Sarkisian, Jones’s showing his ability to perform and compete on that stage started with that display of toughness against Auburn. But that wasn’t the end of it, by a long shot, for the play-caller in learning just what he had in his former three-star recruit—the kid from Florida who was the other quarterback in Tagovailoa’s recruiting class.

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The next piece of the puzzle really surfaced at the outset of the pandemic. With Saban, Sarkisian and the rest of the staff unable to be around the players through parts of the spring and summer, it was on the guys in the locker room to take the bull by the horns to make the most of a year that most people within the program thought could end right where it did—with Alabama’s playing for a national title.

That Jones, even with just four starts, was charged with taking the lead on that isn’t unusual by any stretch of the imagination. He’s the quarterback, and the quarterback is often who that stuff falls on. But as for what happened when those guys got started? That’s when Sarkisian walked away thinking his quarterback was a little different.

“How organized things were. I said, well, ‘What’d you guys do?’ And he said, ‘This is what we covered. This is what we ran,’ ” Sarkisian said. “And I was like, Wow. Most guys go out and they throw some go-balls and some posts. And he’s running plays, they worked on audibles. I mean, he was working on all sorts of things because it was important to him. And then it became really important to them.”

And over time, Sarkisian saw that surface because of how Jones’s teammates felt about him, something that’s come up as his receivers have been asked, pre-draft, if they’d prefer to bring Jones or Tagovalioa with them to their pro teams.

“[Organizing the workouts] just came natural to him because he was so driven and so competitive,” Sarkisian continued. “But, yet, his teammates wanted to be there with him. That stood out to me, that this guy’s a really innate leader. And sometimes, again, that was hard to tell when Tua was in the building. All of the sudden, Tua wasn’t there anymore. He’s gone. He’s with the Dolphins. You really started to see the leadership qualities [from Jones].

“The players gravitate to him.”

And the work they were doing quickly showed up in Jones’s play. To prove it, Sarkisian scrolled back through his mental Rolodex to the Tide’s second game of 2020, and the offense’s first third down of that afternoon against Texas A&M, to best illustrate how quickly his confidence in Jones as more than a caretaker materialized.

Coming into the year, the coaches looked at their veteran offensive line—and bell cow Najee Harris behind it— factored in the losses of Tagovailoa, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy to the NFL, and figured they’d probably be able to break Jones in with a more conservative approach. The problem? Jones, because of the work he did, had the confidence and knowhow of a guy closer to his 60th start than his sixth.

“He didn’t blink,” Sarkisian said. “He cut it loose every time. … The first drive of the Texas A&M game early in the year, we had a third down and he had an alert to a big post to [John] Metchie that we probably hadn’t thrown in two years in practice and/or games. And the look presented itself versus A&M. And he didn’t blink. “

The call was actually to throw the ball underneath to Jaylen Waddle out of the slot, but a safety came down to double the Bama burner, and that left Metchie one-on-one way downfield. And if you go back and watch the play, you see there’s no hesitation.

“He took the shot and we throw the big touchdown to Metchie on the first third down of the game, and that showed you his understanding of the offense, and yet his willingness to cut it loose when things presented themselves,” Sarkisian said. “That’s really how the year went the rest of the way.”

And as the wins piled up, the belief teammates had in Jones only grew. The main reason—as talented as Waddle, Metchie, Harris and Heisman winner DeVonta Smith were—is that Jones was making them better, with his own understanding of what Sarkisian was trying to get done.

He wasn’t just helping those guys with what he wanted them to do. He was giving them the why, too, even with his start count still in single digits.

“He plays the tape forward a lot going into the game,” Sarkisian said. “And so when we put play calls in, he understands why we have the calls in the game plan. He’ll talk to the guys: Hey, we get man-to-man here; Smitty, expect this ball out of this look. Or, Hey, if it’s Cover 2 here, Waddle, be alert on this route. Or, Hey, Najee, if they blitz this backer now. I’m going to get this ball to you here quickly. So it was one thing to talk about it, and then it started to become a reality. In-game, when we got those looks, that’s where the ball would go.

“So he gained a lot of trust from his teammates that it wasn’t just talking about it. It was the action following up on what he talked about with them.”

Which led to the final piece: As the season wore on and the stakes grew, Sarkisian gave Jones more and more rope to command the offense as he saw fit. And the perfect example came with the anniversary of Jones showing Sarkisian the stomach he had for the game in the Iron Bowl.

When this moment came, the game was in hand (Bama was up 35–6 in the fourth quarter), but it was significant in showing how far Jones and the offense around him had come.

“We had an alert on a play to change the protection to a max protection if they were going to all-out blitz us,” Sarkisian said. “And we saw the all-out blitz, and so we let them know to change the protection. So Mac changes the protection to the max protection. After that, then he changes the route combination and throws a touchdown on an inside fade to the slot receiver for a touchdown that …”

And Sarkisian then paused and laughed.

“If he hadn’t earned my trust, I might have been screaming from the sidelines, ‘No!’ ” he continued. “But as he went to change the play, it was like, Sit back, relax; this guy is in command and he’s going to a route combination that we have a lot of faith in. He believed it was going to work and he threw a touchdown pass on it.”

If you really look at the play, there’s one more thing there: His arm could cash the check that his mind was writing.


Sarkisian has pretty good perspective on what we’ve all been talking about, with regard to Jones, over the last month or so.

In 2017, Dan Quinn hired him to run Kyle Shanahan’s offense in Atlanta. The directive was clear from the Falcons at the time: They wanted their new play-caller to master and maintain the scheme that drove Atlanta in the Super Bowl the year before. And while he was there, over two seasons, Sarkisian coached Matt Ryan.

Bottom line, few would have a better feel for Jones’s fit in a place he’s been connected to since the Niners made the trade for the third pick four weeks ago, and even fewer would have any idea how valid all the comparisons Jones gets to Ryan are.

So on the Ryan comp, he says, “I do think it’s fair. They’re both good athletes in their own right, probably better than people give them credit for. They’re both very tough. I mean, Matt Ryan will stand in there and deliver the ball and take hits, and Mac does that. They both know what to do with the ball and throw it on time to the right people. And they both take their shots down the field and throw a catchable deep ball and give people chances.”

And on the Shanahan fit, he added, “He’d be a good fit. He has a really good understanding of the schemes and moving parts. I mean, clearly with Kyle, there’s a lot of motion. There’s a lot of intricate pieces to what he does. And he’d be a good fit understanding the whys in Kyle doing what he’s doing.”

But when I asked Sarkisian if, then, it makes sense that Shanahan would like Jones, he stopped short of hanging a Niners jersey on him.

“I think they all should like him,” Sarkisian said.

Such was the experience Sarkisian had with Jones, and such is why he thinks Jones’s best days are in front of him. Sarkisian saw how ready Jones was after being thrown in there in 2019, how ready he had his teammates for the 2020 season under unusual circumstances and how ready he was for anything any opponent could throw at him by the end of that championship campaign.

Add it up, and it’s not hard to see why Sarkisian sees Jones as exceedingly ready for the NFL.

“He’s already a pro,” Sarkisian said. “Prepares like an NFL quarterback, he’s been doing it. Understanding a game plan, which is very intricate in the National Football League, that will never be an issue with this guy. I mean, he’s going to put in the work, he’s going to prepare. He’s going to think like the coordinator and then ultimately he’s going to go execute the calls and the checks—he did it exactly like I would want him to.”

And that’s the part that Sarkisian knows will translate.

“How he gets to that point, I don’t know,” Sarkisian said. “Is he up till three in the morning memorizing, studying? That’s not really my concern. My concern is the next day when he comes in or on Saturdays when the ball’s kicked off. He knows exactly what the game plan is, why we’re doing what we’re doing, the checks that are needed, the issues on every play. If they do this, this could be a problem. The guy, he knew it.

“And it was very comforting for me, calling plays, knowing I had a guy that was thinking like me on the field that I could have real dialogue with on the sidelines on why we were going to go do what we were going to do next based off of what we were getting. And he understood why. And it was easy for him because he had prepared so well.”

The NFL won’t be as easy, of course.

But as Sarkisian sees it, because of all of this, it’ll be a lot easier for Jones than some others. Which, if you don’t know him, might be just a little harder to see.


Florida Gators' Kyle Pitts

POWER RANKINGS

We’ve spent the last three months, like we always do, breaking down the quarterbacks. So now that we’re so close to the draft, the time seems right to give you a best-of-the-rest list. Here are the top five non-quarterbacks available this year, as I see it (based on a few months of phone calls on this stuff, not my own evaluation).

1) Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: High ceiling. High floor. One comp I got for him from a team was “Calvin Johnson at tight end.” And he’s a very willing blocker, which gives teams the ability to use him in a multitude of ways.

2) Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU: The deeper I dive into it, the more I’m getting from teams that there have only been a handful of receiver prospects like Chase over the last 10 years or so. Big, fast, tough, productive. Not much not to like here.

3) Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: We’ve been over the maturity concerns—most teams think he’ll grow past that—and this is a guy who flashed dominance as a 19-year-old in the Pac-12. It’ll be a surprise to no one if he grows up to an All-Pro left tackle.

4) Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern: Left tackle? Guard? We’ll see. Either way, the consensus is Slater’s going to be a really good player somewhere. How good? I’ve had a few people say to me a Zack Martin (another college left tackle) comp is valid.

5) Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: This was tough. Some teams believe he’s not even the best corner—South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn might be (or Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley if he can stay healthy). But Surtain, like Slater, is seen as safe for a reason.


Alabama WR DeVonta Smith runs vs. Ohio State

THE BIG QUESTION

How much does DeVonta Smith’s weight really matter?

On Wednesday, we gave you the news that the NFL finally got Heisman winner DeVonta Smith on a scale, and at a shade over 6' tall at the medical combine in Indianapolis a couple weeks back, Smith weighed in at 166 pounds. The reaction was predictable: It doesn’t matter! Look at the tape! He’s an outlier!

I’m not going to argue whether it should or shouldn’t matter to NFL teams. I am going to tell you that it does. And the reason isn’t hard to wrap your head around. There aren’t many comps you can find at his position that match his body type. So if you’re going to take him in the first round, you really do have to believe he’s an outlier, and his Heisman season gave evaluators a lot to chew on in that regard.

“I think you definitely have to factor that in, as you would for any prospect on either side of the spectrum—whether he’s 360 or 160,” said one NFC scouting director. “You have to take that into account. However, you also gotta look at his play style. He’s been that little for a long time. He never takes big shots, he gets himself in position to absorb contact, and then, to be honest, a lot of times he’s the one initiating the contact. I think he’s smart in how he plays and deals with it.

“I always say, he’s been 160 for a long time. We’re the ones that have a problem with it.”

If you look at the facts over the last decade, you’ll find just how rare a player like Smith going in the top 10 would be. Over that time, 11 receivers have gone in that range, and only two—Tavon Austin in 2013 and John Ross in 2017—have not been at least 6' 1" and at least 200 pounds. And those two were absolute burners. Ross ran a combine-record 4.22 four years ago; Austin blazed a 4.34 four years before that and Smith isn’t that fast.

So who could you compare Smith too? Marvin Harrison’s been a popular one, but this scouting director gave me another I like more on Wednesday: Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce. The Rams legend was within less than an inch of Smith’s height (a shade under 6') and 173 pounds at the 1994 combine and ran a 4.48 there, which is right in the range where scouts believe Smith, who didn’t run for teams this spring, would land.

“[Smith] is narrow, built the same way, he’s smooth,” said the scouting director, “and you don’t realize how fast he is until he runs by you.”

Like I said, from my recollections of Bruce, I think that comp is dead on. But at the same time, Bruce came into the league 27 years ago.

So, again, you really have to believe Smith’s the kind of outlier that comes along once in a generation. And that’s a leap some teams just aren’t going to be willing to take in the upper reaches of the first round.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The number of teams wanting to trade down always outpaces the teams looking to deal up.

I don’t have detailed statistics from the last decade that can prove this—mainly because it’d be hard to quantify word of mouth during that stretch of time—but I feel comfortable positioning the above as fact. Because it is. And this year is again proof of it, if you look at where we stand with a week left before Night 1 of the draft.

• The Jaguars, Jets and Niners aren’t moving, and will take quarterbacks.

• The Falcons, at No. 4, have been open with teams about moving down.

• The Lions, at No. 7, have been open with teams about moving down.

• After the Sam Darnold trade, the Panthers, at No. 8, are really considering moving down.

• Two teams that have explored moving up—the Broncos at No. 9, and Eagles at No. 12—have also explored moving down.

• The Bengals and Dolphins, at No. 5 and No. 6, have publicly declared they’re comfortable where they are, but won’t rule out moving down.

Call it the Jimmy Johnson Effect. The ex-Cowboys coach was among the first to challenge NFL convention that held teams should build a fence around their picks, and that, say, the 15th pick was worth so much more than the 35th. The Trader Jimmy approach served as the fuel for a gassed-up roster-building philosophy that created some of the greatest collections of talent in NFL history.

Johnson has since spread the gospel, with Bill Belichick being perhaps his most devout parishioner—the Patriots’ coach has logged a lot of hours aboard Jimmy’s fishing boat in the Keys—and the word reaching new coaches and, as a result, new teams every year. (Less than a month ago, second-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule climbed on Three Rings and, boom!, Carolina’s on the possible trade-down list.)

And the effect of it? It’s felt everywhere, and has made it so trading into the top 10, which is the costliest of transactions on draft weekend, rarely happens for anything but a quarterback anymore.

Look at the last five drafts …

• There have been 11 trades into or up within the top 10 over that period. Eight of the 11 were for quarterbacks.

• The three that weren’t happened at the bottom of the top 10, the Titans going to No. 8 (Jack Conklin) and the Bears to No. 9 (Leonard Floyd) in 2016, and the Steelers going to No. 10 (Devin Bush) in 2019.

• One of those three—the Titans, moving up from No. 15 to eight—happened after Tennessee had already moved down (which is what the Dolphins did this year).

• Movement within the top 10 slowed to a crawl before this year’s early flurry, with the Steelers’ trade for Bush the only move up into or within the top 10 the last two years.

So therein you have something to remember for next week. Because of Johnson’s influence, and because of empirical data showing that amassing quantity of picks is the way to go, there will be a lot of teams looking to move down on the first night of the draft.

We’ll see how many will go the other way come Thursday.


THE FINAL WORD

The changes to uniform number rule is fun! But it’s not without a drawback or two, and I think everyone needs to heed the warning of the greatest of all time.

“Good luck trying to block the right people now! Going to make for a lot of bad football,” wrote Tom Brady on Instagram.

And this is, indeed, a concern others have brought up to me—that identifying blitzers is going to be tougher for offenses now, and will lead to more confusion among linemen and free runs at the quarterback. Yes, in college, they’ve dealt with it forever. But there isn’t as much substituting at the level, without the depth NFL teams have, and so the ability of defensive coordinators to play mind games with the offense wouldn’t be as prevalent.

Do I think it’s a huge deal? Probably not.

But I’ll be keep my eye on it.

More NFL Draft Coverage:

* Breer: 20 Things to Know About the Draft
* Rosenberg: The Unrivaled Arrival of Trevor Lawrence
* Vrentas: MMQB Mock Draft 3.0; 49ers Pick Justin Fields
* Prewitt: What Happens to the Prospects Who Opted Out?